Before Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago today, NATO was beset by division. As recently as 2019, French president Emanuele Macron warned that the transatlantic alliance was “becoming brain-dead.” Then-U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump’s 2016 interview with the New York Times about Washington not protecting NATO’s Baltic states from potential Russian aggression because they weren’t “paying their bills” unsettled America’s European allies. For many years, different NATO members blasted Germany and Italy for being too Russia-friendly, with some calling the former a “shaky alliance partner” and a “freeloader.” High levels of friction between Greece and Turkey only further exacerbated intra-NATO tensions.
One of Vladimir Putin’s many strategic blunders in the lead-up to the war was his underestimation of NATO’s capacity and will to unite behind President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. Yet Putin wasn’t stupid for making this miscalculation—after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and seized much of Donbas in 2014, Germany and others in NATO were more interested in buying Russian gas than confronting Moscow over eastern Ukraine. Given this and the aforementioned intra-NATO divisions, the Kremlin arguably had good reason to assume that Berlin and other European capitals would resist Kyiv’s calls for significant military support and refrain from imposing stringent sanctions on Russia.
One year after Russia’s overt invasion, NATO unity against Moscow has, for the most part, remained rather tight. “NATO is united on a number of key issues,” says Paula Dobriansky, a former American diplomat and national security expert. “There is a fundamental consensus among NATO members about the gravity of the threat emanating from Moscow as well as the belief that if Ukraine does not decisively prevail, European and global security would be greatly impaired.”
Throughout the past year, countries in the Western alliance have provided Kyiv with military, economic, and humanitarian support to the tune of $80 billion, with the vast majority coming from the United States and UK. Although the arms deliveries to Ukraine have not been as much as some NATO countries—such as Poland and the Baltic states—would have liked, the alliance has met most of Kyiv’s demands. To Putin’s dismay, the European Union’s unprecedented sanctions packages on Russia, the “revolution” in Germany’s defense funding and energy policy, Italy’s “divorce” from Russia, Turkey’s drone deliveries to Kyiv, and other significant actions demonstrated NATO’s determination to reach its highest level of cohesion in the post-Cold War period.
Cracks in the Alliance
Yet NATO’s unity is not airtight. Hungary, for example, has been accused of obstructing the alliance’s unity to serve Budapest’s interests in maintaining positive bilateral relations with Moscow. In addition to ideational synergies between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Putin’s illiberal philosophies, Hungary is highly dependent on Russian gas and oil, which helps explain Budapest’s quest for foreign policy balance as a beneficiary of both EU subsidies and hydrocarbons from Russia. Nuclear energy, banking, and tourism are other domains that make Russia important to Hungary, which for years has been the most Putin-friendly EU member.
Turkey’s decision not to impose sanctions on Moscow while significantly increasing its bilateral trade with Russia further illustrates how not all members of NATO have been on the same page vis-à-vis the Ukraine War. Unconstrained by EU sanctions, Turkey’s imports of cheap Russian oil have tripled, while Ankara has de facto helped Russia bypass Western sanctions—for example, by importing semiconductors from Europe before re-exporting them to Russia. Wolfgang Pusztai, a security and policy analyst who is a senior advisor at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, noted to us that there are practical reasons for this behavior: “While it is certainly justified to criticize Turkey for this, one must also realize that Turkey is in a very difficult economic situation and has presidential elections upcoming this year.”
Then there is the debate over Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, which has fueled significant tension between Ankara and various Western capitals. From the perspective of the United States and most European governments, these two Nordic countries joining NATO would greatly benefit the alliance. “Russia would be forced to deploy a very significant number of troops on its northern flank to protect the strategic important harbor of Murmansk and the Kola peninsula with their many navy bases from an eventual NATO attack in the case of a Russian aggression in Central Europe,” said Pusztai. “This additional burden means a significant risk for Russia and certainly lowers the appetite for a military aggression against NATO at all.”
More broadly, activists and protestors in the United States, UK, Italy, the Czech Republic, and other NATO countries, concerned about potential nuclear war and exhausted with war fatigue amid a period of global energy crises and inflation, have held demonstrations calling for a halt to arms shipments to Ukraine. Given that these countries are democracies, politicians who share these attitudes could come to power in the near future—a factor that Kyiv can’t ignore.
Ukraine’s Dependence on Western Support
With the Ukraine War entering its second year today, NATO’s member-states and their respective populations face disagreements over the extent to which they should take risks and make sacrifices to achieve a full liberation of Ukrainian land, including Crimea. While the survival of Zelensky’s government and the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation-state were on the line shortly after the February 2022 invasion, they are not today. The war, at the moment, is over a relatively small fraction of Ukrainian territory near the Russian border. As such, European countries generally regard the stakes involved in the Ukraine War as being lower when compared to a year ago.
Anatol Lieven, the director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, explained to us that the prospects for sustained NATO unity against Russia’s aggression will depend on four factors: “The state of the European economy; the risks of escalation to nuclear war; potential loss of faith in eventual Ukrainian victory; and if Russia itself offers a ceasefire. Any or all of these could increase pressure for a peace settlement.”
U.S. domestic politics may ultimately end up determining NATO unity. In the words of Andrew A. Michta, the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, “Should the United States cut Ukraine off, the country could not sustain its defense against Russia for long, regardless of what European NATO members and other supporters of Ukraine would do.” Given that a Republican might enter the Oval Office in January 2025 and decrease Washington’s support for Ukraine (or at least attach many more strings to it), Ukraine has much at stake in the 2024 U.S. election. “West European solidarity with the United States has been partly due to the fact that America has a Democratic administration,” explained Lieven. “If the Republicans—and especially of course Donald Trump—win in November 2024, this could lead to a weakening of the Transatlantic bond and more independent action by France and Germany.”
Germany and Italy will also test NATO’s impermeability. Berlin and Rome have shown a certain level of hesitancy in providing Ukraine with full-scale support. Germany recently delayed equipping Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks, sending NATO allies—many of which were bound to Berlin’s consent to send their German-produced tanks to Kyiv—into a frenzy. The reason behind this delay rests in a decades-old dilemma that Berlin’s left-wing party, currently at the helm of the government, harbors, given its historic pacific stance. Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, on the other hand, is steadfast in sending weapons to Kyiv. But members of her coalition, such as Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, challenge Meloni’s position daily. This, and the fact that less than 40 percent of Italians support supplying Ukraine with weapons, may very well force Meloni to backtrack her support.
Germany and Italy’s hesitant-at-times support may prove quite detrimental to NATO unity behind Ukraine if the conflict rages on as a war of attrition. How long officials in Berlin and Rome can keep voters at bay is a question that keeps many experts pondering, especially given Russia’s effectiveness in tapping into these divisions for its benefit. Moscow has a long and successful history of meddling in internal politics and interfering in the elections of countries it wishes to see under its sphere of influence. European capitals were reminded of this when U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken sent a cable to U.S. embassies warning its diplomats that the Kremlin was funneling money to sympathetic parties across Europe.
Looking ahead, the prospects for NATO maintaining its overall unity against Russia as this conflict rages on are bright. Yet, fissures are within the transatlantic alliance are visible, and the thirty members are unlikely to resolve each disagreement or eliminate all their sources division vis-à-vis the Ukraine War. Determined to prevent Russia’s rogue invasion of an independent European country from benefitting Moscow, Western policymakers will be tasked with managing these divisions and preventing Russia from successfully exploiting them in manners that could harm NATO’s health and cohesion. A united NATO is vital for the future of Ukrainian sovereignty. As the war continues into its second year, the Biden administration will prioritize efforts aimed at preventing member-states from going astray and working with them to maintain robust support for Ukraine.